How Not to Ask For a Book Review

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As some of you may know, I review speculative fiction for GeekDad over on Wired.com.  As an indie author, one of the things I try to do is review other self-published work. Since the eReader revolution, there has been a great deal of good fiction being self-published, but not many outlets for reviews. I decided that I wanted to try and fill the gap, at least for the speculative fiction that would fit with the audience on GeekDad. Recently, in order to find new fiction to review, I put out a call for pitches over at The Writers Café on Kindleboards.com. That turned out to be the equivalent of opening a can of tuna fish within earshot of several hundred hungry cats.

Within thirty minutes, my inbox was pleasantly stuffed with pitches of all varieties. It was an eye-opening experience. For a couple of days, I went through what literary agents, like our own Bree Ogden, experience on a daily basis. I kind of liked it, but it also made me cringe. The majority of the pitches were innocently terrible, and I am sure that I passed over some really great stories, simply because the author could not get my attention. Worse yet, I recognized that I had made all the same mistakes they had made! By being on the other side of the coin, I learned a lot about what not to do when asking for a book review. By extension, I also learned what not to do when pitching your book to a potential literary agent. I thought I would share a few of my insights with you in hopes that your pitches will be received better than some of mine have.

Take a Big Deep Breath

While many writers tend to be introverts, they also tend to be highly emotive and slightly impulsive in their behavior. As I said, within thirty minutes of putting out the call on Kindle Boards, pitches started to show up in my inbox. Most of the first pitches I received were clearly hastily written and not well thought out. They oozed excitement at the possibilities but lacked content. None of these were chosen for a review.

My advice to writers: when opportunity knocks, take a big deep breath. Writing a pitch is almost harder than writing a novel.

My advice to writers: when opportunity knocks, take a big deep breath. Writing a pitch is almost harder than writing a novel. In a novel, you have many pages on which to develop characters, plot, and setting. In a pitch, you have to draw the reader in with a one sentence hook and a brief paragraph. That is a tall order. To be successful, slow down and make every word count. A good book pitch will pack more themes into a paragraph than your whole first chapter.

It takes time and practice to write a great pitch. This is best accomplished by a cool hand and a still heart. Wait till the adrenaline is gone before you write your pitch. Better still, take some time and write one before you get an opportunity to pitch your book to an agent or reviewer. Then when opportunity shows up, you'll be ready.

The Things Which Go Without Saying

I really shouldn't have to say this, but I do. If you are ever going to have anyone pay attention to your pitch, then you need to make sure every word is spelled correctly, and it is properly punctuated. This goes with the "take a breath" idea I mentioned above. If, like me, you struggle to see the difference between there, their, and they're on paper, then you need to make sure you have someone who breaks out in hives when a comma is misplaced edit your pitch before you send it off. (I respect the difference between there, their, and they're. It's just that writing and reading are auditory experiences for me. I am writing down the voice in my head, and there is no difference in the way they sound, so sometimes I pick the wrong word and my eyes don't notice.)

Hook Me!

As a writer for two blogs and an indie author, I get enough email on a daily basis to keep me buried. Frankly, most of the PR stuff I don't read. If you're a PR person sending me information on a product, book, or film, you have to say something in the subject line of your email to get me to even open it. You get one sentence to hook me.

When my inbox was stuffed with review pitches, the problem became even worse. At that point, I quickly adopted a similar policy. You had to get my attention in the first sentence of your email in order for me to read the second. This has to be the case with literary agents as well. Yet, only a select few writers understood this to be true. I think I received maybe five or six pitches out of the sixty with an interesting first sentence, related to their book. For all the others, I might have read the rest of their pitch, but most of the time, my mind was already made up.

When I asked for reviews at The Writer's Café, I specified that I wanted mostly science fiction, but that I would entertain other offers as well, although I said I was skeptical of elf-of-the-week fantasy. Yet, the very best pitch came from fantasy writer Annie Bellet. (Watch out for that name, I am sure you will see it in the future.) Annie pitched a book called Avarice. Her pitch was short, dense, and to the point. More importantly, it started with a clear, one sentence hook that caught my attention. Here is the opening line from her pitch. "It's Law and Order with Sword Fights."

I happen to have a soft spot in my heart for a great police procedural, and I absolutely loved the idea of putting that world into a "sword and sorcery" context. Without even reading the rest of the pitch—which was excellent—I knew I would read her book. It turned out to be a great decision. Bellet delivered exactly what she promised, grumpy boss and all. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and I am looking forward to the next installment.

Seeing what Bellet had done with her hook, I changed the way in which I presented my serialized novel Aetna Rising on Amazon. Like the vast majority of review pitches I received, my book description immediately started out with a paragraph length summary of the book. Now I start with a hook. My first paragraph reads, "Who would Mal Reynolds be if he had never served in the military and had never met Zoe Alleyne? While it isn't Firefly fan fiction, this character driven story developed from asking this question and others like it." This has worked much better for sales than starting with a summary of the novel.

A Word About Words

Just trying to position your book within its genre will make it sound like every other book on the market, and your pitch will be ignored every time. You put your blood, sweat, and tears into your book; now put them into your pitch.

I know right now a percentage of my readers are saying, "But I have a hook, and nothing happens when I send out my pitch." After reading pitch after pitch, I think I know why you never get a response. Perhaps 80% of the pitches I read said something like this:

"My book is a YA dystopian novel about a female teen vampire who survives a zombie invasion from space with the help of a super smart shape shifter and a dreamy android. Now she has to decide between the two of them before they destroy the Earth in their quest to win her heart."

By itself it sounds fine, doesn't it? Ok, so it makes me personally throw up in my mouth just a little bit, but if it were written well and marketed correctly, it probably would sell. In fact, if the first few words were: "My satire of YA fiction is a…," then I might read the book.

However, when the next pitch in my inbox sounds similar, neither of them work. For example:

"My really interesting book is a dystopian fantasy novel about a smart female teen shape shifter who helps her friends, an elf and a vampire, stop an invasion of werewolves. Now she must choose one of them to be her lover before the next new moon or all of fairy land will be discovered by the human world."

While I made both of those up, I did read about thirty of these kinds of pitches in various forms. There was no way I was going to read any of these books. They might have been the next Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, but they sounded absolutely dull and boring.

If you have done your job as a writer, you will have poured your heart into writing the best novel you can. If you are going to get attention for your book, then you need to be able to tell me in a very small space what idea or question made you decide that you could write a better book than all those already in existence. "Law and Order with sword fights," or "Who would Mal Reynolds be without Zoe and the military?" are the types of questions or ideas which unfolded a story before your eyes and drove you as a writer to put pen to paper. They are what will make your book stand out. Just trying to position your book within its genre will make it sound like every other book on the market, and your pitch will be ignored every time. You put your blood, sweat, and tears into your book; now put them into your pitch. Tell me what makes your book worth reading.

My book, Aetna Rising, doesn't really break new ground when it comes to science fiction space opera, but it puts interesting characters into the space opera genre—something which is all too often lacking, and something which many readers say they want. That makes the book stand out from the crowd and has gotten it some positive feedback. My pitch can't sound like anyone else's, or there is no reason to read my book.

Practice Makes Perfect

Most of us recognize that we are not going to write an award winning novel our first trip out. It will take time, practice, and feedback to hone our craft. The same thing goes with pitches. The first time you write one for any given story, you will most likely think you nailed it. Then, coming back a day or two later, you will realize that you need to start over. It takes time and repetition to get a pitch right. Even then, it is hard to know what will work without getting feedback from other writers, and even better, from an agent.

Next week, here at Lit Reactor, you have just that opportunity. Bree Ogden will be teaching a class on how to write queries for literary agents. She will cover topics such as writing an attention grabbing query and the right way to send it out. These ideas will help you pitch your work to an agent, along with consumers and reviewers as well. If you are serious about getting your work published, this is a class you ought to take.

Image via iUniverse

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Erik Wecks

Column by Erik Wecks

I am a full time writer and blogger living in Vancouver, Washington. I am an author of both non-fiction and fiction, as well as a contributor to the GeekDad blog on Wired.com. I write on a wide range of topics. I am the author of two published pieces of Science Fiction and a best selling book on everyday personal finance. Currently I am working on my third story set in the Pax Imperium universe and a book on how to survive serving on an HOA or Condo Association board. When not waxing poetic on various aspects of fiscal responsibility, I tend toward the geeky.

When not poised over the keyboard, I love to spend time with my family. I am married to an angel, Jaylene, who has taught me more than anyone else about true mercy and compassion. We are the parents of three wonderful girls. As a group we like swimming at the local pool, gardening, reading aloud, playing piano, and beating each other soundly at whatever table top game is handy.

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Comments

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading Robert Caro's THE POWER BROKER January 16, 2013 - 5:23pm

"Innocently terrible" is a brilliant way to describe most bad writing.

Great column!

--Ed

ErikWecks's picture
ErikWecks from Vancouver WA is reading The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern January 17, 2013 - 2:36am

Thanks Ed.

ErikWecks's picture
ErikWecks from Vancouver WA is reading The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern January 17, 2013 - 3:15am

To be fair, I should have stated in this article that the vast majority of the pitches I receive from PR people don't have a good hook either. They often start with a long rambling paragraph. I ususally don't make it far into those before I move along.

JC Piech's picture
JC Piech from England is reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest February 6, 2013 - 10:56am

Oooohh thank you! This is so helpful. I can see where I've been going wrong now. So glad I found this :)

powerish's picture
powerish February 8, 2013 - 4:06am

I am a mighty student and I also have problems dealing with my book reviews because sometimes I run out of ideas to write. This blog changes my mindset about making a book review and I can't thank you enough for helping me out. ;)